REVIEW: Six Degrees of Separation (Auckland Theatre Company)

by Sharu Delilkan and Tim Booth

[Connect the Dots]

John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation has helped to popularise the concept that we are all ultimately connected to one another.  The work also discusses how we often yearn to be connected to both famous and infamous individuals as a measure of the rich pageant of our lives.

This critically acclaimed play has garnered numerous awards over the years. It is inspired by the true story of stylish and articulate conman David Hampton, who, in a variety of ways, penetrates the upper echelons of New York society, ultimate duping a slew of wealthy Upper East Siders.

The film adaptation is one of our all-time personal favourites featuring Will Smith in his first ever major film role. The film also stars Donald Sutherland, Sir Ian McKellen and Stockard Channing, who was an Academy Award nominee for her captivating performance.

With such a prestigious pedigree, and a stellar Kiwi cast on stage at the lovely ASB Waterfront Theatre, we had high expectations for this Auckland Theatre Company production. 

Shortland St regular Tane Williams-ACCRA, as the mysterious and enigmatic Paul does well to keep pace with the incomparable duo of Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Andrew Grainger.  Their chemistry, and long history of co-starring together is evident in their believable portrayals as the hilariously pretentious parents of their badly adjusted Ivy-League kids.

This production also features several professional theatre debuts. 

Consummate contemporary dancer Matthew Moore showcases his character-acting chops with his dual roles cast as Doug/Hustler. And Leo Maggs acquits himself well as Woody/Rick.  Both new actors punch above their theatre-weight and hold their own in the star-studded line-up. regular Shimpal Lelisi gives fleeting, but strong performances as the doorman and detective characters.  We always enjoy his clever comic timing, honed as one of the original Naked Samoans.

John Parker’s minimal yet dramatic set is a highlight of the show, acting as an additional character in the production.  The six pillars and six chandeliers representing (you guessed it) the six degrees of separation are a superb foil to the plot unfolding in the foreground.  We love the use of the space between the pillars that inadvertently morph into different contexts as the dialogue and story unravel.

Lucy Jane Senior’s costumes are spot on, enhancing all the actors on stage.  A particular favourite is the garb the Mrs Kittredge adorns in the final scenes on her way to Sotheby’s for an art auction.  The geometric shapes and hues of the outfit are further augmented by Jo Kilgour’s subtle yet effective lighting design.

The plot is clever and complicated, interweaving the weird, wonderful and woeful experiences that Paul puts his adopted hosts through, and introduces a gaggle of varied and colourful characters. However, after an intriguing start the pace falters a little which is compounded by a protracted first half that struggles to hold the audience’s attention.

The New Yorkers seem a lot nicer than their brash reputation would suggest. And it is strangely difficult to buy-into the well-known Kiwi cast’s attempt at a NY accent which ultimately jars and distracts from Guare’s pithy dialogue.  There are also several lengthy interludes of expository dialogue where the cast stand still for inexplicably long periods of time, making it harder to maintain our interest.  

In contrast the second half seems to over-compensate and wraps everything up at breakneck speed.  It almost feels too rapid for us to delight in the deliciously devilish reveals of the “Who”, “What” and more importantly the “Why” of Paul’s astounding, and eventual tragic deceptions.

Contrary to the way the movie profoundly affects us through our shared experience of Paul’s wit and charm, this production seems to fizzle out rather than ending with a bang. 

With an intriguing premise, a mysterious plot and a talented cast this play has all the elements of a winning combination.  We can only hope that time will reveal the gem we know it could be. 

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